Can Florian finish his quest for a title?

BROOMFIELD, Colo. – UFC 1 was held in Denver, only a couple of miles from where Kenny Florian and Joe Lauzon electrified a boisterous sellout crowd of 6,742 that had paid a venue-record gate of $753,429 to watch Ultimate Fight Night the Broomfield Events Center on Wednesday.

UFC 1 was dubbed “The Beginning,” and, in many ways, it was the beginning of a career for one of the world’s finest fighters.

Florian, who became interested in fighting after his younger brother, Keith, was enthralled by UFC 1 about 14 ½ years ago, stopped Joe Lauzon in the second round of a compelling lightweight bout that pushed him to the top of the heap in the crowded 155-pound division.

The Boston-area native, who said his training camp was interrupted when he suffered two bulging disks and tears in his back about a month ago, mounted Lauzon early in the second round and pummeled him until referee Herb Dean mercifully stopped it at 3:28.

“It was amazing (to be fighting here), because this is what started it all,” Florian said after his fourth consecutive victory, all of which have been stoppages. “I remember my brother, Keith, calling me after UFC 1 and telling me about this skinny Brazilian guy named Royce Gracie. He said, ‘This skinny guy is beating all these monsters.’ It all took place here. This is where it all started.

“It’s what got me and my brother wrestling and throwing each other and getting rug burns and training for hours, beating each other up. Who would ever have thought that would lead to actually fighting in the UFC one day? It’s weird to even think about that, but it was great to be part of it.”

Few, if any, of the fighters at UFC 1 – even Gracie – had the all-around type of game that Florian has developed. A black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Florian has become, at the worst, above average in each of the skills needed to succeed in mixed martial arts.

Florian began as a one-dimensional grappler, but soon added other aspects to his game, which he displayed against Lauzon.

Lauzon lived up to his billing as a fast starter, bringing the fight to Florian from the start. He took Florian down early, but suffered a cut on the top of his head when Florian inadvertently elbowed him.

Dean warned Florian for the illegal blow, though he defended himself by pointing out that Lauzon ducked his head as the elbow was coming.

Lauzon, who moved from the Boston area to train full-time in Hawaii with UFC lightweight champion B.J. Penn, was the underdog, but he was fearless and worked feverishly to finish the fight himself. He put a pair of heel hooks on Florian, one of which nearly made Florian trainer Mark DellaGrotte choke.

“That heel hook was pretty close and it was kind of scary there for a second,” DellaGrotte said.

Florian showed one of the many facets of his game when he managed to work free of the submission attempt and bring the fight into the second round.

Once there, it was all over for Lauzon. Florian took him down, got a dominant position on Lauzon’s chest and wouldn’t allow Lauzon to buck him off.

He’s one of the game’s best finishers, as he’s proven by stopping his last four opponents and seven of his last eight.

He hardly looks like a terror, with his spindly build and angular features, but his brother said inside of that thin body is a terrific athlete.

“As long as I can remember, Kenny was good at whatever he did in sports,” said Keith Florian, who is also a black belt and a part of his older brother’s training team in Somerville, Mass. “He played soccer, he was great at tennis.

“I think (UFC president) Dana White tried to build that image up to help (“The Ultimate Fighter 1”). He was saying, ‘Hey, here’s this skinny, nerdy looking guy who is fighting all these bigger guys.’ It was just his way of trying to pump it up. But don’t take him for granted as an athlete. He’s always been very, very good.”

One of his problems now is that he’s in perhaps the sport’s best division and he’s already had a shot at the crown. His only loss in his last eight fights came against Sean Sherk in a bid for the vacant lightweight belt at UFC 64 on Oct. 14, 2006.

There are so many fighters deserving of a shot, as Gray Maynard alluded to moments after his unanimous decision victory over previously unbeaten Frankie Edgar.

“There are a lot of tough guys and I have a long, long way to go,” said Maynard, who broke his right hand during the victory.

Florian’s trip back to the top shouldn’t be long. B.J. Penn will defend the belt against Sherk at UFC 84 on May 24 in Las Vegas. After that, Florian should be up next, based on what he’s accomplished.

He didn’t want to get into it and suggested a fight with Roger Huerta would be a good one for him later in the year.

But Florian is separating himself from the pack, though DellaGrotte said he can still get significantly better.

“He knows he has holes in his game,” DellaGrotte said, “but he plans on filling them and that’s why he’s continuously camping with us and continuously dieting. There’s never an off-season.

“He knows he’s not the best Kenny Florian he could be, but he’s striving to become the best Kenny Florian. And he’s really come a long, long way. I’m proud of him.”

Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Apr 3, 2008